Cambodia’s reputation isn’t built on its cuisine like several other prominent Southeast Asia countries, but many of the country’s traditional dishes deserve more respect than they receive in the culinary world. While most dishes skip the extreme spice and heat of the delicacies found in neighboring Thailand, the mild flavors found in Cambodia cuisine are more than enough to still tickle your tastebuds.
The country’s most notable dishes include Bai Sach Chrouk (pork and rice), Beef Lok Lac and Fish Amok. The Fish Amok is labeled as Cambodia’s national dish and is easy to come by at nearly all restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. While it can vary in consistency, the amok is a creamy or often mousse-like sauce made from a host of fresh herbs and spices. Combined together, the ginger, garlic, galangal, fingerroot, shallots, turmeric, dried red chillies and fresh lemongrass are mixed with a light coconut milk to create what Cambodian’s call kroeung. Eggs are be used to add texture to the mixture, and sugar adds a hint of sweetness. Top it off with the zest of kaffir limes to compliment the natural flavors of the amok. Other ingredients, like a thicker fish paste, also add additional flavors, and each restaurant customizes its own dish.
Over time, amok has been amended and other sources of protein have been added. For the typical traveler, the Chicken Amok found on menus across Cambodia is a safe bet as well. Whether it be chicken or fish, traditionally amok is served in a banana leaf with a side of steamed rice. Many restaurants have now strayed away from the traditional serving style and instead use typical bowls and a small plate for rice, but thank goodness the ingredients and flavors of this traditional dish aren’t changing.
Another “authentic” Cambodian dish, which actually likens to many Vietnamese beef dishes, Beef Lok Lak, is much heavier on the palate but boasts another unique mild flavor. Depending on the the chef, the light sauce highlighting the beef can be either heavily tomato based or rely more on asian sauces like fish sauce and soy sauce. The stir-fried beef is cloaked in the sauce, stir fried with garlic and black pepper and served over salad, mostly lettuce and tomatoes, with a side of pepper lime sauce for dipping. It’s outstanding, and a solid way to eat a beef dish without it weighing too heavily on your stomach.
Chinese and other Asian influences abound in Cambodian cuisine. You’ll rarely find a menu at a tourist restaurant without the typical cashew chicken or delectable curry dishes. Still, each influenced dish often has its own Cambodian twist. For example, you’ll find Khmer curry as well as Amok curry on various menus in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Each seem like traditional Southeast Asian curries, but again you’ll find less spice and more melt-in-your mouth mild flavors. The Cambodian curries are similarly based in coconut milk, but use more mild lemongrass and turmeric for flavor as opposed to the harsh, sharp tastes created by Thailand’s chili powders.
Grilled or steamed fish with herbs like fresh basil, lemongrass and light peppers are also popular.
WHERE TO EAT:
Siem Reap is overflowing with great restaurants and boasts endless options for tourists. Finding a place to eat isn’t hard – just simply walk the Old Market and Pub Street where dozens of cafes, bars and restaurants are dishing out local and western favorites. You may actually feel closer to home eating in Siem Reap than anywhere in Southeast Asia. Social organizations have dominated the culinary scene in Siem Reap, setting up handfuls of western-style training restaurants where Cambodia’s youth are trained to work in the hospitality industry.
Haven Restaurant is one such place.. Haven hires five former-orphanes as trainees each year. While they work at Haven, they live in home together and Haven pays their medical bills and provides food while the young adults work to save money. The chef at Haven once served at the FCC Angkor, one of the nicest restaurants in Siem Reap. The owners, both Swiss ex-pats, have wonderful taste, and truly care not only about the youth their helping, but also sanitation and flavor of the food. It’s a must on any trip to Siem Reap. In high season, make sure to get a reservation if you want to eat after 6:30pm as it can book out in advance. Prices are slightly higher than at other nearby restaurants, but it’s worth the few extra bucks. It’s ranked #1 on TripAdvisor, and I can honestly say it has earned it’s wonderful reputation. It’s located on Sok San Street just up from crowded Pub Street.
AnnAdyA Restaurant and Bar
AnnAdyA is nothing spectacular, but it is reliable. It’s a great atmosphere to grab a beer and local Khmer food. Their menu also lists some western favorites, but it’s best to stick to their dishes with Asian influence. For example, their Beef Lok Lak is delectable! It’s located on Sok San Street just a couple doors up from Haven Restaurant. No reservations are needed.
Friends Cafe goes way beyond a typical Cambodian training restaurant. They truly are helping hundreds of Cambodian children through their programs, supported in part by the restaurant. The food is the best around and includes some local dishes but more gourmet western fare. It’s tucked back off the street, but almost all tuk-tuk drivers can take you straight to it. Again, prices are much higher than at other restaurants and extremely high by Cambodian standards, but it’s worth at least a meal there. Reservations are needed in the evening, but lunch can generally be had without. Friends Restaurant: House 215, Street 13,, Phnom Penh, Cambodia